Guest Post: Christmas Gift Guide Five ‘The Fiction of Roger Lancelyn Green’

The Forgotten Fiction of Roger Lancelyn Green: The 5th HogwartsProfessor Christmas Gift Guide by Chris Calderon

Roger Lancelyn Green is not a well recognized name.  He’s neither a household word, nor can he be found on any ‘Best Of’ lists.  It’s a sad fate for the man who might be responsible for giving C.S. Lewis the necessary encouragement to publish The Chronicles of Narnia.  Green has become one of history’s victims, the kind Lewis meant when he observed: “At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion”.  This prompted the learned scholar to ask a very pertinent follow-up question: “Is there a discovered law by which important manuscripts survive and the unimportant perish?  Do you ever turn out an old drawer…without wondering at the survival of trivial documents and the disappearance of those which everyone would have thought worth preservation?”

This entry of the HogPro Christmas Gift Guide is at least one attempt to try and rescue a bit of valuable history from oblivion.  Here will be found the scattered writings Green made for children, as well as anyone who is willing to encounter a well told tale, no matter what age.  In setting out to write this piece, it should be noted that I in no way meant to step on the toes of John Fitzgerald, whose work on Roger Green’s anthology of world myths can be found here at Bruce Charlton’s Albion Awakening, a blog more than worth a look.  I will use some of the info gleamed from those volumes, however, the books dealt with here are different from those works.

With that in mind, let’s take the plunge, shall we?

The Helen of Troy Cycle.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche occupied C.S. Lewis’s imagination throughout most of his life.  It wasn’t until the publication of the novel Till We Have Faces, that was able to exorcise this particular archetype from his mind.

If Roger Lancelyn Green’s work proves anything, it is that what happened to Lewis is far from a one-off occurrence.  Maybe it is possible for a creative idea to take up so much space in a writer’s mind that the author has no choice except to put it on paper, canvas, or other, just to get free from the idea.  For Lewis, this idea was Psyche, for Dante it was Beatrice; Green’s controlling idea appears to have been The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships.

Helen of Troy is a recurring figure in RLG’s oeuvre.  She is granted chapters dealing with her plight in both The Tale of Troy, and Tales of Ancient Egypt.  In the latter volume, the real Helen is placed in the care of one of the Pharaohs, while a false figure takes her place in the Battle and Fall of Troy.  Helen is assisted in this endeavor by the help of the Egyptian god Thoth, “whom the Aquaisha name Hermes the Thrice Great (188)”.  For Green, the figure of Helen proved to be of further inspiration, in the form of two books for children.  The first one is known as:

Mystery at Mycenae: An Adventure Story of Ancient Greece.

What if Ulysses, hero of the Battle of Troy, and protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey, were, in addition, the progenitor of such figures as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Lord Wimsey, and even Cormoran Strike?  What if Ulysses found himself with a murder and a mysterious disappearance on his hands.  What if Helen of Troy had gone missing, and now it’s up to Ulysses, with Menelaus (pronounced Men-uh-Lay-us) serving as his appointed Dr. Watson, to track her down.  What if their search took them all the way from the palace of King Tyndareus in Sparta, to the Mysteries of Eleusis, to the very walls of Athens?  Perhaps it all sounds fanciful, however that didn’t stop Green from penning just such a tale.

Mystery at Mycenae is a very successful accomplishment.  From beginning to end, Green is a consummate storyteller.  What makes his achievement so remarkable is that he seems to have had the actual written testimony of the original Greek poets on his side while composing the work.

“The following account of the abduction of Helen is given by Apollodorus (Epitome I. 23-24.  Loeb Edition, Vol. II, p. 153) …Plutarch tells the same story, but more fully… (Plutarch, Theseus 31) … (132)”.

The same story both ancient authors have to tell is that there was traditionally a prior kidnapping of Helen that took place long before the events at Troy.  Neither Plutarch, nor Apollodorus were alone in their account.

“Mention of the first abduction of Helen…is made by the following classical authors:  Herodotos…Strabo…Diodorus Siculos…Pausanius…Tzetzes, Scholia on Lycophron…Hyginus… (133)”

What is unique about the myth retold by each author mentioned above is not just that the hero of The Odyssey appears also as a main hero in Plutarch’s account of this earlier caper.  The tale itself effectively functions as a proto-detective novel, complete with intrigue and clue finding, all condensed into an ancient Greek anthology format.  All Green has done it to fill in the details, and expand on the dialogue and descriptions here and there.  In these passages, Green is able to demonstrate his ability as a wordsmith.

John Fitzgerald has already written about the quality of Green’s prose style.  All I can add to his words are a selection of passages from Mystery that help bear his words out.  At times, it seems like the book is written by Tolkien.  Take for instance the following description of scene setting for a normal parlor of those days:

“The big room in which Odysseus found himself for the first time had a marble floor half-hidden by the skins of wild animals, while its grey stone walls were hung with tapestries and embroideries picturing gods and goddesses, nymphs, heroes and battles long ago.  In a little alcove at one side stood a statue of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, before which burned a lamp on a carved altar-stone, while statuettes of Hermes and Artemis flanked the doorway itself (49)”.

Some may find it hard to understand the charm of such descriptions.  Personally, that sounds like one hell of a parlor.  Another example is a passage of description for the city of Eleusis:

“Of course, Helen knew what Eleusis meant – Eleusis, the city of Mysteries.  It was, even in those days, famed throughout Greece, and the center of its deeper religious life.  Eleusis was the shrine of Demeter, the goddess of new life – of the miracle of the growth of the corn from the seed; of the increase of flocks and herds, of men and women.  Here, when weary of seeking through the world for her lost child Persephone, the Mother Goddess had sat by the well and been fed on “kykeon,” or barley broth, by the daughters of King Celeus; and here she had remained in her sorrow until Hades the grim king of the dead agreed to restore her daughter to her for six months of the year.

“Of the Mysteries of Eleusis, Helen knew little.  There was a great ceremony every year, she remembered, at which those who were thought worthy became Initiates: but what happened at the ceremony was a secret which no Initiate would ever betray…After the first terror, the hopelessness and the rebellion against the cruelty of fate, those days and nights at Eleusis passed for Helen like a strange, wonderful dream.  For first time, she seemed to touch the veil separating her from the world of the spirit – and the veil grew thin beneath her touch.  The strange superstitions, the strange tales of the gods of Olympos, fell into their real places as she drew nearer to the heart of the Great Mystery (93-94)”.

If these passages demonstrate anything, it is not only that Green is able to hold his own with both Lewis and Tolkien, he is also capable as a literary scholar.  Within this book a wealth of knowledge about ancient Grecian history, including an advanced knowledge of the country’s myths and rituals, is condensed into just a few short paragraphs.  It is in these passages were Green is able to tip his hand to the attentive reader.  With mention of the Hermes archetype as a piece of the setting, Green shows the same awareness of the traditional literary symbolism at work in fantastic fiction as that possessed by his two more famous friends.

Green is even able to pause the action long enough to deliver an obvious lecture on the pagan mystery religions.  His message on pages 93-4 seems to be that these mystery cults were themselves a “veil” of hints about the Great Mystery of the Incarnation.  Green further is able to telegraph his awareness of the nature of esoteric writing in children’s literature.  He makes this clear in his description of the “a secret which no Initiate would ever betray).  It’s the author’s way of saying his very words are clues to the type of tale he is telling, however, out of an apparent respect for literary tradition and practice, he can only give away his secret to the audience in hints and symbols.  For the curious, Green suggests, a good place to start to figure out his meaning is any reliable, scholar’s text about the Elysian Mysteries.  In particular, he suggests W.A. Wigram’s Hellenic Travel (134).

Beyond the symbolism, however, Green’s most astounding feat is that of uncovering an actual Classical example of detective fiction couched in anthology format in the writings of Plutarch and Herodotus.  The fact that he was able to tease out enough hints from a mere collection of half told literary fragments makes the book’s existence all the more remarkable.

The Luck of Troy.

Where Mycenae presented a genuine discovery, The Luck of Troy is Green working in more familiar territory.  The entire book is his own retelling of the Fall of Troy, and it is a sign of Green’s talent that he is able to wring some genuine excitement out of an old, familiar text.  In this retelling, Troy’s downfall is seen through the eyes of Nicostratus, Helen’s son.

“One point, however, should be made clear.  The actual part played in the story by Nicostratus is without direct authority from the ancient authors.  It may, indeed, come as a surprise to many readers that Helen and Menelaus had a son: many authors mention only their daughter, Hermione, who was left behind in Sparta.  Nicostratus is, however, as genuine a character as any in the Tale of Troy (167)”.

This is somewhat ideal, as Green’s choice of vantage point for viewing the events of The Iliad is through the eyes of a child, a boy on the cusp of manhood.  The creative choice allows the 21st century, post-modern reader an easier access to the ancient materials that they might not otherwise have been able to quite understand.

This choice of a child protagonist for the hero also serves to highlight the over-arching theme of the book.  Green spells it all out:

“For a desperate moment something seemed to rise up inside him and shout that it wasn’t true, he mustn’t let it be true…his unreasoning panic to escape from this new life into which it seemed that he was being forced… (71)”.

This concept of thematic change is one which echoes not just throughout Green’s text, but also that of all the four major Inkling authors.  It could be argued that the theme of change was the one that obsessed all of them in various degrees.

It is a concept the hero of The Luck of Troy spends the entire story coming to terms with.  At the start, Nico is just a sideline observer of the Trojan War.  He watches from the parapets as someone named Achilles parades past without giving the whole spectacle a second thought.  It isn’t until he meets a stranger named Odysseus, who claims to be a friend of his never before seen father, that Nico begins to take a vested interest.

Soon enough, Nico begins to find himself tugged in two directions at once.  On one hand, growing up in Troy has been the only life he’s ever known, thought his mother often talks about Sparta with a familiarity that has always been somewhat puzzling to him.  On the other hand, with people like Odysseus and Achilles constantly popping up when least expected, Nico finds himself agreeing to help these men who are complete strangers, much to his own astonishment.

In the end, it is his own reluctance to end the war that proves to be Nico’s greatest enemy.  Troy is the only world he’s ever known, yet the irony is that life he’s struggling to hold onto is that of a prisoner.  The single reason he knows anything about Troy is because his mother was brought there years ago against her will.  In his case, Nico is a metaphoric testament to the idea that a person can only accept that reality which he is given, even if this reality proves to be a lie.  If a child is born or grows up in a prison, then the ironic result will be that, however brutal life may be, the child will still not think of himself as a prisoner.

What Green presents the reader with could be taken as a very clever riff on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  In Nico’s case, all of Troy and his entire life in it up to now is the cave.  It’s when lifelong friends start acting like stranger, and grown-ups, normally looked up to in a guardian-like way, begin to treat him more like a pawn to be moved about as strategy dictates, that Nico is able to make a choice that will determine both history and legend.

Tales from Shakespeare.

Over the years, the plays of Williams Shakespeare have gone through a number of popular reader editions.  These books all have the same goal.  They must try to force the language and heft of England’s premiere playwright and author into the short story format.  In addition, they have to find some way of pairing down the language to whatever level a 4th grader can comprehend.  The poetic couplets and almost sing-song half rhyme scheme of Elizabethan diction must be translated into the best possible contemporary prose.

These creative strictures place the prose popularization of Shakespeare in a paradoxical bind.  On the one hand, Shakespeare is an author whose works have shown an incredible resiliency in their staying power.  His work has been able to survive almost entirely on the power of the words alone.  On the other hand, these plays are as much victims of time and taste just like actual human beings.  Whatever makes Shakespeare triumph over all tests of time, it’s obvious enough that prose translations have little to do with it.

For those reasons, I wonder how much Roger Green suffered through when composing Tales from Shakespeare, the latest “popularization” of the Bard’s work up to that time.  I can’t imagine that this was ever an easy book to write.  For one thing, you have to mangle some of the best poetry in the English language.  That may make sense from a beginner’s standpoint, but how does it affect the flow and impact of the story itself?  Let’s take an example from Green’s transliteration from the famous Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet:

“Oh Romeo, Romeo!’ she murmured, dwelling wistfully on the name.  ‘Oh, why are you called Romeo?  Is it only your name that is my enemy?  For after all, what’s in a name?  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Then throw your name away, it is no part of you – and in exchange take me and all my love (19)”.

If I were and editor, and Shakespeare brought me his manuscript, and it was written in just the style used above, I might have had to tell him some bad news.  I’d say that it’s pretty clear you have some idea for a story, and yet it still needs work.  In the lady’s speech, you are trying to build up an idea of romantic infatuation, and kind of calf love.  However, you just can’t find the right words to express it.  That, in a nutshell, is you’re whole darn problem.  You’ve got the ambition, maybe you even have a bit of inspiration, however you’ll need to work harder at your form of expression if you ever want to make your ideas go anywhere.  The good news is that Shakespeare never wrote it like that.

To hammer the point home, it helps to look at what Green is able to do with Hamlet’ Soliloquy.  You can tell from the text he afraid to even go near it.  Instead, Green finds himself in an unhappy compromise.

“Hamlet was indeed on the edge of madness.  He could not make up his mind what to do; and once again his unhappiness and uncertainty were turning his thoughts toward suicide.  He was debating endlessly, endlessly with himself whether it was better to be alive or dead, braver to endure whatever might happen or to plunge a dagger into his own heart.

“To sleep,’ he moaned.  ‘To die and so find rest – so end all the heart-aches and mischances that are the lot of mankind.  To die…. To sleep…. But perchance to dream…. That’s where the trouble lies.  What dreams are there in death?  What makes us fear to end our life with the help of a naked dagger?  The dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose border no traveler returns, makes us rather endure the misery we know of than fly to sufferings of which we know nothing (35 – 6)”.

In the end, it all comes down to the words, and any sympathetic reader who is willing to engage with them.  For reasons perhaps even he was never sure of, William Shakespeare was blessed with an incomparable way with words.  No one has ever quite been able to string together phrases like he could.  In the blending of metaphor with narrative circumstance, he was one of the best at making the English language come alive.  This is a fact born out if you take a moment to get acquainted with Shakespeare’s original words.  They aren’t able to work their charm on everybody, however those who read with an open mind soon realize they’re in possession of one of a kind.  There’s no way something like the Soliloquy could be translated without losing its fundamental identity.  The same thing can happen even in the narrative itself.  For instance, didn’t Han shoot first?

With that said, perhaps the task Green was given is not a total, wasted effort.  While plays like Romeo or Hamlet suffer when transformed into prose, plays like King Lear, Othello, and even a lesser known drama such as Pericles are made accessible to young readers while somehow being able to maintain the atmosphere that Shakespeare originally poured into them.

While Tales from Shakespeare is certainly a mixed bag, it is not an empty one.  If the reader, young or old, is willing to approach the text in the right frame of mind, they might just discover that what appears to be a thin pallet is in fact the appetizer to the main course.  The book can only ever be an introductory text, yet even primers have their value.  The good primer can act as a gateway to the grown-up world of the English Language.  Just so, in the right hands, Green’s prose translations can help open up the imagination to the hidden world of the Elizabethan Renaissance, with a Bard from Avon as your guide.

The Land of the Lord High Tiger.

This book is all but lost to time.  Almost everyone these days has at least a vague notion of the Narnia Chronicles, however if you to mention the title of Green’s children’s book, the best you can hope for is an ongoing series of blank stares.  This situation is the height of irony, because back in the day, the most ridiculous criticism Lewis had to fend off in the wake of his Narnian success was that he just stole most of his ideas from Green.  As Walter Hooper shows in the third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, this was one impression that proved a minor annoyance for the Oxford Don.

However, all one needs to do is make a read through of the book to see that Green and Lewis are working in totally different spheres.  Lewis’s Narnia revolves around a series of adventures had by three generations of children in a world composed of Renaissance planetary symbols and iconology.  Green, on the other hand, is telling a standalone story about a boy named Roger, and a dream he may or may not be sharing with a neighbor, Priscilla.

Now, stop me if you’ve heard this before.  The story tells of the adventure these two children have in a fantastical land, whose peace is threatened by an evil wizard and his dark armies.  Together with a collection of friends who may be no more than their favorite stuffed animals, Roger and Priscilla must make their way toward the wizard’s tower to defeat him once and for all.

If the basic set-up is generic, what matters is how Green fills this typical structure in.  On the whole, I’d call it a success.  In some ways, it helps to have read Green’s literary criticism before diving into this tale.  In particular, a key source for High Tiger is Green’s Tellers of Tales: British authors of children’s books from 1800 – 1968.  The latter book was an overview of all the major children’s writers and their books, both mythopoeic and otherwise.  With this background knowledge in mind, it soon becomes obvious that what Green has created is an homage to all the Victorian children’s literature he grew up with as a child.  This places the work less in line with the complex symbol scheme Lewis was working on in the Narnia books, and more in line with the kind of informal tributes George Lucas or Steven Spielberg created in works like Star Wars or Indiana Jones.

Certain characters are named after the titles of obscure works of kid lit.  For instance, the appointed regent of the magical realm the two protagonists visit is named King Katzekopf.  The name will mean little until one notes that Green singles out Francis Edward Paget’s 1844 The Hope of the Katzekopfs as one of the earliest examples of books geared specifically toward a young adult audience.  In addition to hidden references, characters from other children’s classics both appear and make direct contributions to the action.

“They must go by Magic Carpet; that’s the only way to find a lost Princess in a hurry.  You wish to be wherever she is – and the Carpet takes you there…summon the Phoenix and bring it here this instant!’

“…What’s the Phoenix for?’ asked Roger as he drained his last mouthful of toast and marmalade.

“You always have to have a Phoenix with a Magic Carpet,’ said the Queen severely, ‘that’s a Rule.  There’s only one Phoenix, so there’s only one Carpet.  The Phoenix takes care of the Carpet – or else the Carpet takes care of the Phoenix…  Good, here is the Phoenix.’

“The door opened again, and there stood a beautiful golden and blue bird as big as a large cock, who had a little blue flame which came out at the top of its head like a very tall comb (46)”.

The character and the prop are both taken from Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet.  As in their earlier adventure, both Carpet and Phoenix exist in a dependable symbiosis, and the titular bird is still cursed with a sensitive and disagreeable stomach.  What makes the above passage remarkable is that is a concrete demonstration of Literary Allusion.

In her recent study, Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, Beatrice Groves highlights the essential nature of intertextuality as a key feature of J.K. Rowling’s narrative strategy.

“Rowling has spoken of reading as a ‘sort of conversation’ – a meeting of minds between author and reader…This readerly awareness of ‘what’s in the author’s mind’ is never closer than on finding an allusion.  Recognizing an allusion is like eavesdropping on a conversation; it is a moment when a reader identifies with the writer as a reader like themselves…Harry Potter’s playful use of allusion is pleasurable for the reader – spotting allusions is fun, it makes the reader think, and rewards that thought – and it is clear that Rowling also enjoys putting her work in dialogue with other texts…Allusions ‘establish a special kind of rapport between author and reader’ (Machacek, 2007, p. 531) and Harry Potter builds on the rapport created through its generic connections with the common culture of childhood reading – of fairy tales, Lewis, Tolkien, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl – to take its readers forward into its more subtle connections with the great works of the Western literary tradition (xi)”

What’s remarkable is that in The Land of the Lord High Tiger, we see one of the Inklings utilizing this same strategy.  By dropping Nesbit’s Phoenix and Carpet into the mix, Roger Green signals the kind of work he is composing, as well as hinting at the kind of writing that made his book possible.  While the High Tiger can perhaps never compete with Narnia, it is still an essential text that provides insights into the shared narrative techniques and beliefs of one of history’s most famous literary groups.

The Tale of Ancient Israel.

In some ways, it’s a misnomer to label this book fiction.  At least, I think it would be a mistake.  From that angle, the book is really a translation of most of the main writings and texts of the Old Testament.  Green chooses to keep his sole focus on the Histories, leaving out the writings of the Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs.  This choice allows the reader to get as concise an overview of History of Israel as set down in Sacred Scriptures.

The pages cover from Genesis to the First Book of Samuel.  The style is best described as what you would get if Tolkien were given that entire swath of the OT to compass and translate.  Green’s diction can perhaps never measure up to that of his university tutor, however, he is able to strike a poetic cadence, while keeping true to the spirit and meaning of the text:

“So he gathered together all his family: his sons and his grandsons and all their wives and women and children.  And they gathered their flocks and herds and all their goods, and set on the long trek into Egypt – more than three hundred miles, first through mountains of Palestine, and then by the north of the Desert of Sinai into the Egyptian Delta near the Salt Lakes on the Isthmus of Suez, and to the Land of Goshen to the south of Tanis which Joseph had set apart for them.

“Jacob sent Judah in advance to announce his coming, and when Joseph knew of it he gathered together his friends and followers and a great many Egyptians who were under his command.  They were clad in rich garments with gold and silver ornaments, and the troops were fully armed as if for war.  Music and gladness filled the land, and all the people, the women and the children gathered on the house tops to watch the magnificent procession.

“Joseph was dressed in royal robes, with the crown of Egypt upon his head; but when he drew near to his father he stepped down from his chariot and walked to meet him.  And when the nobles and princes saw this they too descended from their horses and chariots and walked to meet him (94 – 5)”.

These three paragraphs are able to convey the text of Scripture.  At the same time, there is a wealth of detail that is accurate to history.  Throughout, it is all presented to the reader in a graspable, and easy to digest manner.  In this regard, the closest book Green’s work on the OT bears comparison with is J.B. Phillips’ modern translation of the Gospels.  In Green’s case, the text is a success in terms of both readability, and clarity.  By focusing on Biblical History, and presenting it in an easy to read format, Green has perhaps done the service of making the history of both Judaism and Christianity understandable to people of both faiths.

A Holiday Bonus.

It’s time to deliver on that Christmas bonus I promised way back at the beginning.  It’s time to discuss Green’s joint project with Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography.  The book was first published in 1974.  Since that time, a whole industry has bloomed in the form of continued Lewis studies.  While there have been achievements in this area over the years, I’d like to make the case that Green’s book still remains unsurpassed as the most deep and deceptive portrait of the author of the Narnia Chronicles.  I’d like to focus on one passage in particular:

“…it took Lewis many years to come to terms with ‘modern’ poetry – and though he never accepted it as equal in value to the best of the traditional variety, he came to recognize the greatness of some of its exponents and numbered Eliot and Auden among personal friends.  However, his favourite contemporary poets seem to have been Charles Williams, Roy Campbell, and Kathleen Raine… (95)”.

There are a handful of other examples that might have helped illustrate the superiority of Green’s work over later editions.  However, it was the mention of Lewis’s relationship with Raine that best serves the point I wish to make.  The mention of Lewis being of a fan of a minor poet has no significance for anyone until we dig deeper into the source material for the above passage.

Turning from Green’s text to Lewis’s correspondence, we discover that not only was Lewis’s a fan of this Kathleen Raine, he was also a frequent pen pal, scholarly source, and background cheerleader for her work.  He first wrote to her in 1956, and in the third volume of his Collected Letters, Lewis finds her poems to be “cold, bright, and yet with a dash of the dark earth-taste in them (734)”.  In addition to being a poet, Ms. Raine was also a well-regarded literary scholar.

“She told Lewis about a major project on Blake, and he replied in his letter of 5 December 1958: ‘When the Big Book finally appears I think all pre-Raine views of Blake will be obsolete forever.’  The Big Book was her two-volume Blake and Tradition… (1705 – 6)”.

Lewis further commented:

“There is a certain monotony in commenting on your Blakiana, for the best fact, namely that you are clearly quite right, makes for the dullest proposition.  Your Tiriel is really quite unanswerable (943)”.

A good idea of Raine’s thought can be gleaned from a passage of her posthumous collection, That Wondrous Pattern:

“I believe that the true purpose of poetry and the other arts is to remind us, to help us to remember the eternal world within ourselves.  When the old supportive structures of civilization fall away, is our time perhaps compelled to look within?  Jung speaks of this time as demanding of us individuation, the inner journey there to discover the fountain all share (44)”.

Finally, Lewis once made an admission to Raine, one that is of particular importance for understanding the type of biography Green has written (italics once again mine):

“Yes, we are members of a really pretty widely diffused secret society, who can usually recognize one another – but one must beware of the pleasure of esotericism.  I am…glad you liked Narnia (1281)”.

Lewis’s phrase, “the pleasure of esotericism” is both a dead giveaway to how he viewed himself as an author, and a key to understanding the kind of biography Green was writing.  For the purpose of this essay, the phrase “esotericism” refers to any text that has an extra, hidden meaning just below its surface meaning.  In his review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines, Paul Cantor gives the best summary of the kind of writing Lewis and Green are engaged in:

“…philosophy is a hazardous venture. In their quest for true knowledge, philosophers are forced to question the unexamined assumptions of the communities in which they live, including any authoritative political opinions and fundamental religious beliefs. This kind of free inquiry places philosophers in jeopardy with civic authorities, as evidenced by the way Athens put Socrates to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. And Socrates didn’t even write books; he left no papyrus trail for his prosecutors.

“Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous “double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.” They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines, which careful readers could figure out by paying attention to various anomalies in the text.

“For example, philosophical works often contain contradictions that just about anybody can spot. Superficial readers will treat such contradictions as mere mistakes on the part of the philosophers, but, as Melzer argues, this apparent stupidity is really a deeper form of cleverness. “Contradictions appear in a specific configuration: Orthodox views are often strategically positioned at the beginning and end of a work (where conventional readers are most likely to notice them and be mollified by their comforting presence), while opposing, unorthodox views are safely tucked away in the least exposed portions of a text (often right in the middle), to be ferreted out only by intrepid readers. To speak in spy language: The task of the esoteric reader is to distinguish the true information an author is trying to convey from the disinformation he deploys to distract and confuse his enemies (web)”.

What’s remarkable about Green’s book on Lewis is that it marks the very first time I have ever encountered an example of where this particular strategy is used for the purposes of non-fiction biography.  Green knows and sympathizes with the esoteric form of creative writing and apologetic scheme Lewis utilized throughout his life and career.  Because of their shared religious and philosophical outlook, Green is able to follow one of the dictums of Sherlock Holmes: “You know my methods, apply them”.

Green applies the esoteric method in such covert hints as highlighting Kathleen Raine as one of Lewis’s favorite poets.  He also does this by mentioning one of the sources for the characters of the Oyarses in Out of the Silent Planet:

“The name Oyarses, as Professor C.C.J. Webb has pointed out to me, must be a corruption of… [“ruling essence”]; and he has kindly drawn my attention to Pseudo – Apuleius Asclepius… (162)”.

This source will mean nothing to a lot of people, even once they discover the Asclepius is an Ancient Greek Hermetic Text.  Lewis was able to experience that esoteric pleasure when such references, as well as the surface meaning of his interplanetary yarn, went over the heads of his critics:

“You will be both grieved and amused to hear that out of about 60 reviews only 2 showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but an invention of my own…. any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s mind under the cover of romance without their knowing it (164)”.

In the same way, Green is smuggling in this same shared knowledge of traditional symbolism and criticism throughout his bio of the Narnian author.  The above are the ones that stood out to me the most.

Conclusion.

I hope this gift list has done a bit more than providing some good ideas for holiday reading material.  If anything, it will have gone some way to demonstrating that Roger Lancelyn Green is familiar with the kind of layered, Esoteric Christianity practiced by both Lewis and Tolkien.

I hope I’ve also given at least a suggestion of why I think Green’s biography should still be considered the most definitive overview of Lewis, even if those reasons aren’t deliberately obvious.  Green is able to capture the hidden nuances of both Lewis’s religious and creative thought in ways that will probably continue to escape most of the modern biographies for, at least, quite some time.  I also hope this list is able to give away the fact that Green is familiar enough with the Inkling’s narrative strategies to be able to apply them to his own creative endeavors.

If there is any drawback to Green’s style of authorship, then it would have to center around the nature of esoteric writing in general, and how it easy it is to miss with just a surface reading.  Perhaps one of the major challenges for modern audiences will be how to learn and understand such layered forms of reading and writing.  Until then, I hope I’ve gone some way toward giving both Rowling and Inkling fans a very Merry Christmas.

 

 

Comments

  1. Brian Basore says:

    Thank you for this commentary which is literature in its own ‘write’.

  2. Prof. Basore,

    Thanks for the compliment. Though I’d hardly call any my words literature. Maybe they qualify as what Joyce called “Litter-rare”, or something like that.

    I did learn some quirky things about Kathleen Raine while writing the last part of this piece. On page 31 of the essay collection, “That Wondrous Pattern”, Raine describes Charles Dickens as a Realist author whose novels “reflect and caricature mannerisms and externals, without a trace of…imaginative transformation (ibid)”. The irony is, as pointed out in the essay above, is that she was a fan of the Narnia stories.

    As an ironic counter-point, I had a chance to look into Arthur Machen’s book length work of criticism, “Hieroglyphics”. In that book, Machen labels the work of Dickens as literature with a capital L. However, he can’t bring himself to do the same for the work of Jane Austen.

    Machen’s criterion for this judgement is that “The Pickwick Papers” were able to cause an aesthetic experience that Machen calls “Ecstasy”. It’s his main guidepost to what counts in a work of fiction. If the book has elements that make him experience this “Ecstasy”, then it can claim to be literature. If it doesn’t, then it is just fiction. For some reason, he can’t get any sense of Ecstasy from Austen’s books.

    This led me to an interesting question. Supposing Machen were given a copy of the parody text “Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies”. Let’s further suppose that this added Fantastic element caused him to have that “ecstatic experience” which sounds incredibly close to Lewis’s ideas of “Joy”. If such an experiment were possible, and Machen came away claiming that P&P&Z was the better book, then the conclusion to be drawn is that his range of imaginative sympathy would perhaps be a very narrow one. This is all hypothetical, however.

    The one idea I can’t shake is that both Raine and Machen had something left out of their makeup that, for whatever reason, barred them from enjoying certain authors who had a much better claim to critical attention than they were able to give.
    “Strange days, indeed”.

  3. This is a superb piece. Informative, perceptive and suffused with a real warmth and affection for its subject. Well done.

  4. Mr. Fitzgerald,

    My pleasure, and you’re very much welcome.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for some fascinating, unknown works of Green, tantalizingly presented!

    I wonder if he may still be “a well recognized name”, and maybe even “a household word” to many of several generations who are familiar with the books you note John Fitzgerald has attended to. He notes (which I am happy to hear but did not know for sure) “Green’s tales are as much in demand and just as available now as in 1970.” Going to the Puffin website to check, I see six of his books are currently available, in different formats:

    https://www.penguin.co.uk/puffin/search/?_charset_=UTF-8&q=Roger+Lancelyn+Green

    But, indeed, all of these are of his more familiar retellings, rather than the works you illuminate here (not that there is not a lot of originality in a good sense in those familiar retellings, too: I did not read any till I was an adult, and especially like the Tales of the Greek Heroes for what seem his insights new to me).

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of Kathleen Raine, she translated Denis de Rougemont’s La Part du Diable as Talk of the Devil in 1945 – a fascinating book I had never heard of till I can across a second-hand copy of her translation.

    I wonder which, if any, of the Inklings knew it, in the original or translation, and think perhaps it particularly invites a thoughtful comparison with Screwtape (which I have not yet attempted even for myself).

  7. D.L. Dodds,

    Thanks for the favorable verdict.
    I haven’t read de Rougemont, yet I want to say I’ve at least heard of him from somewhere. I’m wondering if I might’ve confused him with some one of the symbolist critics who was among many of those years to note the relation of then contemporary poetic imagery with the older, more arcane forms of typology. I forget whose name I’m thinking of, and I’m not too sure of the book, either, just that it was about Modernist Poetry and its relation to the past.

    The interesting part is in bringing up de Rougemont, you may have helped solve a conundrum. On page 37 of the “12 Rowling Sources for Potter Pundits” PDF essay, there is a quote from Rowling on the influence of a book called “The Story of Manon Lescaut”. Her comments on the books significance runs as follows:

    “What I took from [Manon] was how much of love was an illusion. I’ve seen that proven in my life ever since. And it’s always that book that I return to in my mind, when I watch that happen (37)”.

    Here’s where your bringing up de Rougemont comes in. Based on your comments, I looked him up, and discovered he authored a text called “Love in the Western World”. Going over it put me in mind of Lewis’s words re: “Abasement” in “The Allegory of Love”. Out of further curiosity, I typed Lewis’s name next to de Rougemont to see if there was any connection between the two.

    The results brought up a passage where Lewis actually quotes de Rougemont as an authority in “The Four Loves”:

    “St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougemont) that ‘love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god’; which of course can be re-stated in the form ‘begins to be a demon he moment he begins to be a god.’ This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.

    “I suppose that everyone who has through about the matter will see what M. De Rougemont meant. Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done ‘for love’s sake’ is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to ‘become gods’ is generally recognized. But family affection may do the same. So, in a different way, may friendship….”

    The link where I found that quote is here:

    http://equusnomveritas.blogspot.com/2012/06/quote-of-day-cs-lewis-on-love-god-and.html

    My question is: Is Lewis’s citing of Rougemont the missing piece that place her Lescaut quote in its proper context? This is just the train of thought as it occurs to me. In some ways, I’m sorry I even brought it up if it means dragging someone into something they needn’t be concerned about. Still, if any makes sense to you, feel free to add two cents. The same goes for Mr. Granger, or anyone else who has a thought on this.

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dear ChrisC,

    I think “Love in the Western World” is his most famous book, and have seen it variously mentioned in (so to speak) the same breath as “The Allegory of Love”, but also have a sense of it as more controversial, on account of bringing in the Cathars (if I recall what I’ve heard) – but I am embarrassed to say (as someone who should know a lot about Courtly Love), I have never yet read it!

    An interesting Inklings fact about it, however, is that it was translated into English by Charles Williams’s friend, Montgomery Belgion – but I think only after he was released from imprisonment by the Nazis at the end of the war, only sadly to discover on his return that Williams had just died suddenly.

    (There may be lots of interesting Inklings references to it, out there, but I don’t know any by heart.)

    So, I don’t know if it makes any connexion with Manon Lescaut – another book I have not (yet?) read.

    An interesting Manon connexion I do know, is in Dorothy L. Sayers’s second Wimsey novel, Clouds of Witness, where familiarity with it is involved in the solution of the mystery.

    A wonderful De Rougemont book, which, sadly, I do not think has been translated into English, is Journal d’Allemagne (1938), about some three years living and working in Nazi Germany (!).

    On the strength of those two books of his I’ve read, I’m game for anything of his – and must really dig up my wife’s copy of “Love in the Western World” and finally read it!

  9. D.L. Dodds,

    Interesting! Thanks for bringing up the Sayers reference. A good source book I just got in the mail is a Catherine Kenny’s “The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers”. I’m still on just the opening pages, however I’m already seeing parallels between JKR and DLS.

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ChrisC,

    I really enjoyed both James Brabazon’s and Barbara Reynold’s biographies of her, and this sounds like a very interesting study!

    It is fascinating how she moved from young poet into being detective story writer – becoming one of the most renowned (and, with Tristan in Brittany in 1929, translator) – and out of it again to being (verse) dramatist and ‘public thinker’ – essayist, apologist, etc., and spectacularly back to translator as well. “The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers” sounds like a good help to thinking more about that.

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